The Commercial Appeal (Memphis)

October 29, 1996, Tuesday, Final Edition


LENGTH: 729 words

NO SCAN DO, New system goes for privacy

BYLINE: Kevin Robbins, The Commercial Appeal

Alone in his shrine at the top of the stairs, Dick Adelman thinks about fires.

Who wouldn't? A row of 39 fire helmets rings the room, where thousands of fire-related pictures are cataloged and toy fire trucks are arranged on a shelf. On a table sits a lamp fashioned from a hose nozzle. On the wall hangs a firehouse gong.

Most days, a radio scanner chatters in the upstairs den of Adelman's home in Bartlett. Adelman retired in 1984 after 31 years with the Memphis Fire Department, but the urge to know what is burning out there is a flame he cannot put out.

But soon he might have to.

City officials hope to begin next month installing a new digital radio system for Memphis police and fire personnel. That might dampen Adelman's ability to scan the airwaves.

Operating in the higher 800-mhz frequencies, the $25-million system will hide radio conversations in ways the current system doesn't.

It will employ 31 frequencies. It is a trunked system, meaning it chooses whichever of those frequencies is free at the time. That, city officials say, makes it harder for criminals to monitor exchanges because only the system will know which frequency will be used.

But the system also excludes hobbyists like 67-year-old Adelman, who listens to his older, 400-mhz scanner to pass the time.

"Everybody wants to be a fireman at one point or another. Most people outgrow it. There's a certain few who don't," says Adelman, who says he didn't and still hasn't.

"I spent a lot of years on the department. I like to know what's going on."

Evidently, so do a lot of Americans.

An estimated 10 million people regularly monitor scanners, according to the founder of a monthly magazine dedicated to the hobby.

"It's a game. It's like target shooting, but nobody gets hurt," says Bob Grove of Brasstown, N.C., a former high-school teacher whose magazine, Monitoring Times, has about 30,000 subscribers. Grove says he's listened in on boats, airplanes, space shuttles and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

"It's live," adds Alan Henney, editor of Capitol Hill Monitor, a newsletter for enthusiasts in Washington.

Scanner buffs "get to see what's going on. They actually see their tax dollars at work, or hear their tax dollars at work. No one's picking and choosing what you hear," says Henney, a 29-year-old college student who says he listens to scanners 12 to 16 hours a day.

"Eyes beyond your door" - that's how Henri Hopper, a sales associate at the Radio Shack store at Hickory Ridge Mall, describes the scanner.

"There's so much congestion on the lower frequencies" that the higher, 800-mhz system is necessary, Hopper says. His store stocks scanners in that range, so police and fire scanning isn't a dying hobby, but finding particular transmissions will be more difficult when the new system is installed because transmissions no longer will remain on one frequency.

Instead, they'll skip from channel to channel. "There's a reason for that privacy," Hopper explains, noting that dangerous police investigations - narcotics and the like - need to be veiled. "There's a person's life at stake."

Hopper says scanners, which now range in price from $ 129 to $ 449, come in desktop and hand-held models. Some models include a feature called "hyperscan," meaning they peruse 50 channels a second. That, Hopper says, will help enthusiasts eavesdrop on the 800-mhz system, though it will be hard to track one particular exchange.

It might be awhile before that happens, said John Hourican, director of the city's division of information systems. City officials still are smoothing glitches in the system, Hourican said, before they begin to assign the 5,000 new radios to police and fire departments.

So Adelman listens still.

A former chief of training in Memphis, he now tunes dutifully to transmissions in Memphis and Bartlett, where his two sons work for the fire departments.

He says he'll miss the chatter in what his wife, Rita, calls "that noisy old room."

But the retired fire chief says he understands the necessity of the new, trunked system.

"It's needed for the good of the department. And that's what counts."

GRAPHIC: Photo, By Michael McMullan, (Color) The new Memphis Police and Fire Department communication system may confound scanning hobbyists like retired firefighter Dick Adelman of Bartlett.